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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 50

Pickering published his defiant dictionary of “words and phrases which have been supposed to be peculiar to the United States.” 8 This thin collection of 500 specimens sets off a dispute which yet rages on both sides of the Atlantic. Pickering, however, was undismayed. He had begun to notice the growing difference between the English and American vocabulary and pronunciation, he said, while living in London from 1799 to 1801, and he had made his collections with the utmost care, and after taking counsel with various prudent authorities, both English and American. Already in the first year of the century, he continued, the English had accused the people of the new republic of a deliberate “design to effect an entire change in the language,” and while no such design was actually harbored, the facts were the facts, and he cited the current newspapers, the speeches from pulpit and rostrum, and Webster himself in support of them. This debate over Pickering’s list, as I say, still continues. Lounsbury, entrenched behind his grotesque categories, once charged that four-fifths of the words in it had “no business to be there,” and Gilbert M. Tucker 9 has argued that “not more than about fifty” of them were genuine Americanisms. But a careful study of the list, in comparison with the early quotations collected by Thornton, seems to indicate that both of these judgments, and many others no less, have done injustice to Pickering. He made the usual errors of the pioneer, but his sound contributions to the subject were anything but inconsiderable, and it is impossible to forget his diligence and his constant shrewdness. He established firmly the native origin of a number of words now in universal use in America—e. g., backwoodsman, breadstuffs, caucus, clapboard, sleigh and squatter—and of such familiar derivatives as qubernatorial and dutiable, and he worked out the genesis of not a few loan-words, including prairie, scow, rapids, hominy and barbecue. It was not until 1848, when the first edition of Bartlett appeared, that his work was supplanted.